Colic is still the No. 1 killer of horses and increasing water intake is still one of the recommended ways to reduce the risk. A horse who is not drinking enough water can begin to experience dehydration and impaction colic in as few as 48 hours.
Hay quality also impacts the risk of colic. In general, stalky or cattle hay is less digestible than leafy varieties. Cattle’s ability to digest stalky grass falls off only 2 or 3 percent compared to leafy grass. Horses on the other hand, experience a 20 percent or more drop off.
“You always want to feed high quality hay (whether it be alfalfa or grass hay) as this is the best source of protein and nutrients for your horse while also being easier for the gastrointestinal tract to digest,” said Dr. Laura Petroski-Rose, a staff veterinarian with Kentucky Equine Research. “Low quality hay tends to have thick and tough stems, which the gut is much less efficient at breaking down.”
Regarding feeding pellets, horse owners are faced with both benefits and disadvantages for their horses, Dr. Petroski-Rose explained.
“The most rewarding times to feed pellets would be in horses with dental or respiratory issues, as these can control some of the factors that exacerbate those diseases,” she said.
Pellets, however, have been shown to dehydrate the fecal matter in comparison to hay, she warned.
“A way around this could be to soak the pellets in water, which I
generally recommend” Dr. Petroski-Rose says, especially for fast, greedy eaters who can experience choke.
“Additionally, encouraging your horse to consume more water is ideal and having fresh, clean water sources available at all times is imperative.”